With all apologies to Roger Miller, there’s a new king of the road when it comes to country music. And beyond.
That would be Kenny Chesney, the Tennessee-born, Caribbean-loving singer who’s short in physical stature but looms large at the box office, even in tough economic times. He ranks as the top ticket-seller of the 21st century, passing the million mark each of the last six years and on track to do it again in 2008. Last year, he had the No. 2 tour, behind the reunited Police, with $71.1 million in gross ticket sales. His current Poets & Pirates Tour ranked No. 4 for the first half of 2008 with $75 million, despite fewer shows and lower ticket prices than those in front of him. And in a year when nobody else is touring in stadiums, Chesney is playing 13 of them — including this weekend’s show at Ford Field in Detroit.
“People get off the couch and come because they’re passionate about our music and believe in it and want to experience it live,” notes Chesney, who turned 40 this year with a party in Nashville attended by a slew of his celebrity music and sports pals. “One of the secrets to my success is that when people see me on stage, when those kids are out there in the audience, I really believe that they can see a little bit of themselves in me, and I can see the connection. I can see it in their eyes.
“There’s a lot of girls that come to our shows, but there’s a lot of guys out there too that are very excited to be there, that were just like me wearing that ball cap at the Keith Whitley show 15 years ago.”
Also contributing to his domination is the fact that Chesney’s shows have become family affairs, which has led to a kind of vertical expansion of his crowd.
“Our audience has changed a little bit over the last several years, and it’s a good change,” he explains. “I look out and I see a kid that’s eight years old singing every single word. And I see a guy that’s 80, you know, that’s singing every single word.
“It’s a pretty broad audience out there right now, and we got a lot of people out there that want to have a great time.”
Chesney’s success is not just in the concert arena, either. He’s on a run of six straight platinum-or-better albums, starting with “Me and You” in 1996 and including last year’s “Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates,” which has spun off four hit singles, three of which hit the top of the Billboard country charts. In fact, 14 of his 41 charting country singles went to No. 1 — including “When the Sun Goes Down,” his 2004 duet with Detroit’s Uncle Kracker. And Chesney has just released “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” the first track from his forthcoming “Lucky Old Sun,” which is due out this
fall. His trophy case, meanwhile, houses 25 from the Country Music Association, Country Music Television and the Academy of Country Music; the latter gave him his fourth consecutive Entertainer of the Year prize in May, though Chesney stirred up a bit of controversy by slamming the organization’s move to allow the public to vote for the award.
“The fans have been great to me and continue to be,” Chesney — who was married briefly (four months) to actress Renee Zellweger in 2005 — said after the presentation, “but I don’t think it’s right that they pick the one award that means the most that all the artists sacrifice the most for, and they’ve taken it from what the award really represents into a sweepstakes to see who can push the people’s buttons the hardest on the Internet. I don’t think that’s right, really.
“I think it’s complete disrespect of the artist ... I think because of that it really diminishes the integrity of the music that we’re making and how much work goes into it, because that’s what really matters. That’s what Entertainer of the Year really is.”
But Chesney isn’t letting that spoil his fun out on the road this year. Having overcome a foot injury suffered at an April show in South Carolina, he’s getting close to his fans with a “Double T” stage configuration that juts into the audience, while the performance is fortified by a new four-piece horn section led by regular Rolling Stones saxophonist Jim Horn.
“I’m always trying to think of what would be cool to me,” Chesney says. “We do work very hard. We work probably harder preparing than ... Once we get out there, it’s fun. But the preparation to go do what we do is really intense.
“The first time you play in front of a crowd, no matter what size it is, to feel that energy and them singing those songs back to you. You remember, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what we do for a living.' "
Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Gary Allen and Luke Bryan perform at 4 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 2) at Ford Field, 2000 Brush St., Detroit. Tickets are $69.50-$99.50. Call (313) 262-2002 or visit www.fordfield.com. A Next Big Star competition to select a local band to open the show takes place at 9 p.m. Friday (Aug. 1) at the Hard Rock Cafe, 45 Monroe St., Detroit. Contestants include Terri Lea and the Mustangs, Willie Nash, Annabelle Road and the Tequila Town Band. Besides the opening spot, the winner also receives $25,000 cash and the opportunity to audition for RCA Records. Admission is a $5 donation to Plan!t Now. Call (313) 964-7625 or visit www.hardrock.com.
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